Winter in Fairbanks

The sun, high in the late afternoon sky, is warm on my bare arms this spring, 2001, day in Alaska. From my deck I have a view from Hidden Hill out over the spruce swamp to Ace Lake, a mile away—a glittering diamond set in the hollow of green hills on three sides. Permafrost, solid for thousands of years, rests just under the spongy moss: hardly passable now, but last winter’s ski trails through the swamp to the lake are still visible.

Since July 2000, I have been living in a community with nine others at Hidden Hill, a small set of cabins with a large main cabin and a meetinghouse. Viewed from the air, it is hidden under spruce trees just west of University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Below the deck a red squirrel scolds as she holds a small cone in her forepaws, spinning it and picking out the seeds. Perched on a tree above me a raven asks about lunch: "Wraak? Wraak?" A pair of redpoll sparrows with scarlet caps flits in the branches, odd pieces of string and twigs trailing from their beaks to make a nest. Nesting: we all need our own. Mine? It’s four time zones away, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

My Alaskan adventure started in May 1999 when I was in Fairbanks with my wife, Patricia McBee, to lead a couples enrichment retreat for Chena Ridge Meeting. Actually, this affair of the heart began in the summer of 1959 on the "SJS II," an old fishing boat owned by Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka. Along with several other young Presbyterian volunteers I went from one Native American village to another in southeastern Alaska teaching vacation Bible school. I’d been yearning to return to this land ever since.

While here in 1999 I felt called to return to Fairbanks for an extended visit. It was not a voice at my shoulder saying, "Brad, you must come back to Fairbanks"—but a deeply felt intuitive leading. It’s the kind of feeling I’ve learned to trust over the years. I shared this in spoken ministry during meeting for worship and was pleased by the response. Friends in Chena Ridge Meeting invited me to come back as a Friend-in-residence. They told me of another Friend, Connie McPeak, who had stayed the winter of 1997-98. They felt enriched by her presence with them and felt that if another Friend responded to a call, whatever gifts that person might bring would be welcomed and valued.

From the very beginnings of Quaker history, Friends have welcomed visitors who came with a burning concern—or, perhaps, just to be a spiritual presence. Their visits were usually a week or less. However, Friends here in Fairbanks have developed the idea of an extended visit for the purpose of spiritual nurture into a ministry that would extend for several months. Why so? One factor, certainly, was the sense of isolation in this central Alaskan town, 350 miles northeast of the seaport city of Anchorage and less than 100 air miles south of the Arctic Circle. There was an expressed need for people to come—not just for a short visit, but to stay and more fully experience the dramatic climate changes, the natural beauty of the land, and most important of all, the friendly and sometimes quirky folks who have made a great effort to come here and live "at the end of the road."

I wondered, last summer, what I would experience here alone. Patricia would be staying in Philadelphia. She and I tried to imagine what it would be like for each of us to be apart for several months after almost 30 years together. We went for a walk along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, past Boat House Row, talking about my leaving for Alaska. Across the river, sumac bushes were red against the white rocks. The river held my gaze, swirling, roiling, yet the same. We knew it would be hard sometimes and said so as we stopped for bagels in a little cafe. As we sat in high-back oak chairs we laughed about our mythic totem images: Pat pictured herself as a tree rooted, giving shelter; I as an eagle, exploring, coming back. We reconfirmed our commitment to support each other’s callings, strange as they sometimes seemed.

Why do some of us yearn for travel, to leave the comfort of hearth and home for the discomforts of the journey? To get a new perspective, a new point of view?—perhaps. Or, as one skeptic has suggested, maybe just to deny our own mortality.

I had no sooner stepped off the plane in Fairbanks last July when I was whisked off on a canoe trip down the fast-flowing Chena River, cloudy from glacial melt. Moose browsed off to the side. Stopping along the way, we picked blueberries. In August we went salmon fishing on the Copper River in the shadow of the Wrangell Mountains. We took dinners at the "It’ll Do . . . Cafe," walls constructed of logs, decorated with sepia photos of long-gone local pioneers.

As fall began and soft snow arrived to coat the spruces in the swamp, I went out on the ski trails and found the sun low in the southern sky, casting long shadows across Ace Lake. The silence of that place had substance, weight. The swamp gave a sense of patient waiting; it knew countless years of long, cold months before the return of summer birds. Occasionally the quiet would be broken by the deep toc, toc of the raven, making her way across the lake and into the trees. Silence, so complete and full. Do trees speak out of the silence?—listen.

The welcome from Friends in Chena Ridge Meeting was warm and generous. In the main cabin at Hidden Hill we "hillbillies" had dinners together, with each one of us taking turns as chief cook. Once settled in, though, I realized I didn’t have enough activities compared to my usual level. Part-time work as a nurse was slow to come. There was less for me to do here than there was back home in Philadelphia. This was a dilemma that some of us would yearn for on Friday afternoons after an exhausting week.

Yet here I was facing a situation of not having enough to do. This brings me back to the main point: the function of Friend-in-residence seemed to be a matter of being and not doing. I had to explore this discomfort—these feelings of uselessness, for example—and to reflect on where they came from. Why is it that we feel the need to be so busy?

Being a Friend-in-residence brought with it the discipline of being fully present to my moment-to-moment, day-to-day experience even during times of intense self-doubt. Winter’s darkness and depression arrived on time. "Why am I here?" I asked myself one Sunday early in January as I stepped out from my apartment above the meetinghouse. The dry snow crunched in complaint on that twenty-below-zero morning. It was the only sound breaking the stillness. Usually the silence of the land was a pleasure, but that morning it felt cold and lonely. No redpoll sparrows were to be found in the bushes. The world seemed empty as I walked around to the front door of the meetinghouse.

Meeting for worship was to start in a few minutes. Folding chairs were arranged in three sets of circles. I selected a seat at the back of the room with a view through two large windows. In the soft light, still predawn at 10:00 a.m. here, the lower branches of the spruces were snow-laden with upper spires black against the gray of distant hills and clouds. A raven landed violently on a branch, spilling snow, staring at figures moving through the dim light toward the meetinghouse door.

I closed my eyes. Again the disturbing question arose: why am I here? Why Alaska, with its darkness, cold, and, at that moment, oppressive loneliness? Not wanting to explore these painful feelings, I opened my eyes and let my awareness return to the silent room. The clean walls were bare—no writing there. With a parting glance the raven flew away, leaving the trees motionless in the cold morning. No, the answers were not to be found in the raven, the trees, or the wall. More days of solitude and reflection were needed to again be at peace.

How did I get through the darkness of that January? E-mails went out to friends telling them of my doubts and depression. Many loving responses came back—stories of how friends dealt with painful times, and thoughtful questions about dealing with the pain of depression. Some coped by confronting the pain of the situation directly (Beowulf diving into the fiery cold lake to confront the rage of Grendel’s mom). Others found it best to get moving, cleaning a corner of the living room, going for a walk, or finding some new way to help others.

What I found remarkable about those responses was that there was an outpouring of compassion. In the sharing of our stories we struggled to make sense of our experiences, and we helped each other find a way out of the darkness. The love and concern of friends healed me during those painful days.

One afternoon in February, while on the ski trail on the swamp by Ace Lake, I stopped to savor the silence of that quiet place. Suddenly a moose was standing in the trail about 50 feet away. As I turned to look, she stood motionless, her massive head staring at me. She turned to the willows alongside the trail and continued to browse. With two steps, she disappeared. Did that really happen? How do they do that, appearing and then disappearing as if by magic? And how is it that the wilderness experience is so healing? The natural world seems to give a sense that things simply are the way they are—the way they are meant to be.

Why was I there? I reviewed the basic task of a Friend-in-residence—to be fully present. Opportunities for service emerged: some requested, some unbidden. I noted talks with friends about concerns close to their hearts. And yes, of course, various requests to help with this or that project. I organized two potluck dinner/discussions, one for single Friends and the other on sharing our social concerns. Serving on the Adult Education Committee, I helped develop several discussion topics as well as organize the cooking for a meeting-wide retreat. Most surprising was an invitation to give a lecture to a community group on the search for wisdom.

Other opportunities emerged for service with Chena Ridge Meeting. I led a one-day retreat on "The Art of Letting Go" to explore those occasional stumbling blocks in our journey when we hold something too tightly with clenched fists. Then there was an active men’s support group that met regularly, and several of the men got others to join in a men’s retreat at Hidden Hill. A highlight of the retreat was exploring the Beowulf myth. We all have our own demons to be faced—or not faced, as the case may be.

I led a regular Saturday-afternoon meditation group. We followed disciplines and practices taught by Thich Nhat Hanh to better center ourselves and clear our minds. Friends found them useful as ways to get into the experience of silence in meeting for worship. On most Sunday evenings several of us gathered to belt out gospel songs to the tune of 19th-century shape note or sacred harp music.

At the Alaska Friends Conference (AFC) meeting in Anchorage I led a workshop entitled, "Is there a Quaker Way of Dying?"—yes, it seems to me that there actually is. Most helpful was a Pendle Hill pamphlet by Lucy S. McIver. When AFC met again in Fairbanks I led another workshop called, "Finding Clearness and Support for Calls to Social Action," based on a process developed by my own meeting.

A big challenge was in the area of prayer. While I do not pray as a daily practice, not having any experience of a personal God out there somewhere, I do have a sense of being surrounded by love on a daily basis. I felt called to support the life of the meeting in some form of prayer. Jesus taught a very simple prayer addressed to "Our Father in heaven"; as Friends we sometimes prefer the language, "holding someone in the Light." I found that what seemed to work best for me was to hold a positive, nonjudgmental attitude towards the meeting and the people I would encounter on a daily basis. Another practice was listening to people as attentively as I could.

A red squirrel has just distracted me from my writing by climbing up on the cabin and getting in under the roof. She looks out at me with huge eyes. What might she be thinking? I gaze out over the green spruce trees and savor again the pleasure of the previous Saturday when, with temperatures in the 50s, I drove north into the White Mountains. At the summit, 4,500 feet high, the snow was dry and the air in the mid-20s in bright sunshine with a blue sky. Perfect for cross-country skiing. I followed the summit for an hour before running out of level terrain and turning back. I was just above the tree line in a land of snow-covered mountains, the lower levels dotted with green spruces—just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

Would I rather be at home, wistfully thinking of travel, or traveling, wistfully thinking of being at home? I yearned for home; it was hard for me to be 4,000 miles and four time zones away. Friends asked, "How’re you and Pat doing?" "It’s been hard," I answered, "but we’re reminded of what’s important in our relationship—in our lives, for that matter. Each of the two of us is our own person, at one level, and yet we are deeply connected after 30 years."

It seems that we need a balance between independent freedom and dependent security. Wholeness is involved with having a balance that is satisfactory to both partners. Living separately, we have the freedom to live out each day according to our individual rhythms and preferences, yet without the other person there is a muting of color, a kind of flatness.

There was a happy respite in the March of my Alaskan adventure when both Patricia and our daughter, Jennie, came for a visit. One night we carried cushions and sleeping bags out to the parking lot and lay on our backs in ten-below-zero cold to watch the luminous, green northern lights streaming out and swirling up and away for hundreds of miles.

Should you pass by, you will find the Friends of Chena Ridge Meeting to be a special people who create warmth, love, and community in a distant, wild land. There’s a bed in the loft over the kitchen in the main cabin. Dinner is at 7:30 p.m.; guests are welcome.

Brad Sheeks

Brad Sheeks returned to Philadelphia at the end of April 2001 after serving as Friend-in-residence with Chena Ridge Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, since the previous July. He works as a visiting RN for a local hospice service and is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, currently serving as clerk of its Membership Care Committee. He and his wife, Patricia McBee, have been leading couple enrichment workshops since 1975, most recently at Pendle Hill.